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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, now dismantle the tech patriarchy

I just started writing my review for Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, by Claire L. Evans. If I had timed things better, I could have written this review earlier and published it today, on Ada Lovelace Day. As it is, I’ve paused writing my review of this amazing book for a quick blog post about this day and women in STEM in general.

Ada Lovelace, by the way, is often called the world’s first computer programmer. This is because she designed the first algorithm for Charles Babbage’s never-built Analytical Engine, which was itself the first stab at a mechanical computer. Additionally, Lovelace was a kickass mathematician—although she was reluctant to draw attention to herself by publishing her own work, she ended up translating a bunch of other work and adding annotations of her own that were often longer, in total, than the original work!

Lovelace, and the many women who follow her (read Evans’ book for more!), demonstrate that women have always been a part of tech. Women don’t just belong in STEM; women are an essential component of STEM and have been from the very beginning.

Yet we have what people call a pipeline problem: somewhere along the way, from elementary school to university or in the job market belong, women who initially gravitate towards STEM fields back away and drop out.

Today, it’s Ada Lovelace Day, and so I just want to shout: it is not the responsibility of women in STEM to fix the leaky pipeline.

I see a lot of women in STEM who talk about how they always get roped into diversity initiatives, into giving talks to young girls, into becoming the poster-women for their company or university. And if they’re cool doing that, great—but we should not put the onus on the people who are under-represented to do the majority of the labour to fix representation.

It is the responsibility of men in tech to stop being creepy and to dismantle the systemic barriers to women. Moreover, there are significant barriers to non-binary people and people of colour, and while the intersections of these various marginalized identities are complex and non-trivial, ultimately the solution is the same: those with power and privilege in tech need to use that power and privilege to change the industry, not just shrug and say, “It’s the pipeline's fault.”

For those of us who aren’t in the tech industry, this is not something we should ignore. We need to hold the tech industry to account. We need to make noise. Most importantly, we need to question our assumptions and learn our history. Learn about women in STEM history, from Ada Lovelace to Emmy Noether and beyond. Think about the stereotypes and assumptions about gender that go into the tech toys we give our children. Think about the messaging you see in advertisements.

Ada Lovelace Day shouldn’t just be a day we stop and celebrate the contributions of women in STEM. It should be a day we stop and wonder what more we can do to make women feel safer and more welcome. Because if history is any indication, society is far better off when we treat women like the people they are.